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Creeley on Acid
There’s been a rash of stories in the news lately about LSD, in relation to its possible effect on alcoholism and on the fear of death in the terminally ill. I was struck by the timing of these stories, as I’d just been discussing both topics with Tony Sargent, a retired biophysicist who had worked in nuclear medicine at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and, as a sideline, had also done much clinical research on how LSD interacts with brain before the drug was declared illegal in 1966 and such study became all but impossible. Sargent was a trip, a lean Burroughsian figure who sniffed disapprovingly at Leary’s antics and the disrepute they brought on LSD’s psychiatric potential. Sargent himself was cautious, only publishing in dry professional journals under the name Thornton Sargent III. I was talking to him because of an article I’m working on for the Poetry Foundation about the poet Alden Van Buskirk, author of Lami (Auerhahn, 1965). Sargent met Van Buskirk in 1961 when the 23-year-old poet was soon to die of a rare blood disease, and had attempted to set up a guided LSD session with a psychiatrist to confront his impending death, much as described in the recent New York Times article. This is the one of the great frauds of our culture: we already knew of these potential applications fifty years ago, but political considerations have forced mankind to rediscover them as though anew.
Sargent couldn’t pull off the session Van wanted, but did turn him on to the fact—then only published in German, in an article by LSD-inventor Albert Hofmann—that morning glory seeds contained LSA, basically psilocybin. So Van got at least part of the experience he was looking for, as he records in “9-17-61.” Sargent claims this is the first published account in English of a morning glory experience, but you can read about that later. This is Creeley on Acid.
Creeley on Acid remains a semi-apocryphal tale, pending confirmation by its other protagonist, John Thorpe. John Thorpe is a Bolinas poet, not online; a phone number I got from Joanne Kyger led to another phone number that’s been disconnected, so if you know how to get in touch with him, please write me c/o Harriet. And yes, I’m totally namedropping here because I want to be clear I did reach out through the highest corridors of Bolinas diplomacy. But my source, David Meltzer, is a reliable one, so I will offer the as-yet-unconfirmed factoid as a hypothesis in light of the reawakened interest in the effect of LSD on the psyche, some testimony from the poets. I was telling David about Sargent and Van and the morning glory seeds, and then digressed into a story Sargent told me about Aldous Huxley taking LSD on his deathbed in order to prepare himself to die. David of course already knew this story but it brought to mind the story of Creeley on Acid. Which was this:
Creeley in his Bolinas days was a heavy drinker and a bar brawler. Indeed, the behavior predated Bolinas: Richard O. Moore just told me a story about filming Creeley out in New Mexico for public television. As they walked into a bar one night, Creeley pointed out a guy and commented disdainfully that he was a land speculator. That was it. Then about an hour later, after several drinks but otherwise apropos of nothing, Creeley leapt from their table, ran across the room, and attacked the guy. You can still see the astonishment in Richard’s face as he tells that story, like Creeley had been stewing about the guy the whole time without letting on even as he was calmly discussing villanelles, Olson, girls. Of course, chaos ensued, all were ejected, and the bar shut down for the night. The fact that people tend to speak as though Creeley initiated such behavior in Bolinas suggests it only got worse and/or more routine during that period in his life. But what David also suggested that evening was that Creeley also cured himself of this behavior, at least for some duration, during his time in Bolinas. To be sure, he still drank excessively, but “suddenly he became a happy drunk,” David said. David asked him what had happened and Creeley said he’d gone on an LSD trip (or two?) guided by John Thorpe. Again, the extent to which this transformation lasted is unknown, but I’d be more than interested to hear what Thorpe knows about it. LSD didn’t cure Creeley of drinking but it seemed to have cured him of something.